Miracles vs. Magic

I just finished listening to a course on the Great Figures of the New Testament, taught by Vanderbilt University Divinity School Professor Amy-Jill Levine, generously lent to me by my friend Harry. Professor Levine is a gifted lecturer and I’ve both enjoyed and learned much from her talks on the “great figures” she selected for inclusion in the course.

One of the last figures Professor Levine addresses (the last two are Paul and Jesus, each of whom gets two lectures in the series) is Philip, who was appointed with Stephen to serve at table, ensuring that food distribution to the widows. Philip fled Jerusalem at the start of the persecution during which Stephen was killed.

One of the episodes discussed is Philip’s encounter with Simon Magus. In connection with that story, Professor Levine raises the question of how one distinguishes between miracle and magic. What makes what Simon does magic or sorcery and what Peter and John do miracles or “signs and wonders.”

It is an interesting question. From the point of view of the observer, there is no difference between magic and miracles. Both usually break normal scientific laws and influence things in what appears to be a non-natural manner.

But it is clear from accounts like this one that the Bible treats miracles and magic as being different things and I think it is correct to do so.

There is an enormous difference between the intention and purpose behind miracles and magic. One commentator put the difference this way: “Magic intends to astonish, to draw attention to its own prowess, to put the focus on the power itself. Miracle intends to use the exercise of power to benefit another, to address the real needs of one human being or a group of human beings.” As I wrote in a recent post, Jesus’ refused to exercise his power to feed himself when tempted to do so by Satan; Jesus, however, showed no reluctance use his power to feed the multitudes.

Magic is about the magician’s power and desire. It serves the aims of the magician. Miracles are about the power and will of God.